November: Kitchen Store Heaven & Madeleines
Somehow I’ve been in Paris for a month. Now when I pull my third-floor apartment door shut behind me, I don’t wince before descending the wooden stairs smoothed to a luge by centuries of use. (I just relax all my muscles and jump.) Nor do I have to muster all my psychological fortitude before approaching the checkout lady at Monoprix. Either my French has gotten better or she’s humoring me.
But there’s one thing that time isn’t making feel familiar. Each morning when I ascend from the Javel metro stop and turn north toward Le Cordon Bleu, the Eiffel Tower faces me. It’s far away but taller than I could have possibly imagined, its latticed A-frame dwarfing everything. And it’s not the silver I thought it was – it’s a dark bronze, like an old penny in shadow. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. I walk two long blocks with it right in front of me before I get to the school, and I try not to blink.
One of the other best surprises of my new life in Paris is the quartier I live in, one of the little mini-neighborhoods in the clockwise spiral of districts. I live in the first district or arrondissement, at the center of the clockface. The quartier is called Les Halles – named for the food market that was the heartbeat of Paris for 800 years until it was torn down in 1971 to build a mall. If I lean a bit too far out my apartment window and look straight up, I see the belltower of Eglise Sainte Eustache. For seven centuries the food market sprawled in the shadow of the church.
The mall that replaced it is mostly underground. It looks like a wound, though maybe that’s only because I know what used to be there. But signs of the market linger in the surrounding cobblestone streets. There are the bistros that used to serve fishmongers all-night fare, which now do a steady, marked-up business with tourists. There are produce stalls lining Rue Montorgeuil, half of them called Les Halles. Best of all, there’s a cluster of kitchen supply stores that’s the stuff of culinary dreams. Their proximity to one another seems like a competitive disadvantage, but such was the gravitational pull of Les Halles.
Around the corner from me is E. Dehillerin, open since 1820 and specializing in wallet-annihilating copper cookware. On the opposite side of the block is Mora, the posh older sister of all the stores. You go to Mora for new-fangled silicone entremet molds and the sleekest selection of probe thermometers (which I know because I kept accidentally melting mine on the stove and had to keep buying more). You walk up Rue Montmartre to A. Simon for a Williams-Sonoma-esque variety of serveware and baba au rhum pans. And you circle toward G. Detou for professional-grade chocolates, flavorings, nuts, and preserves. They have it all, as their name says, homonymically. Pronounced correctly, it sounds just like the phrase: “j’ai du tout.”
Of all those stores, Dehillerin is the most storied, and has a reputation for ruining tourist’s travel budgets. I learned from a tweet that when VP Kamala Harris was here this month she dropped a cool $600 on pots, like so many Americans who’ve been seduced before her. (I picture her leaving the store flustered.)
I had my own semi-accidental purchase there, but it was less fever-dream than panic-buy. The sequence of events that led to the acquisition started as soon as I arrived in Paris. My first weekend, I went to Dehillerin to browse – the first of several weekly trips I hoped would endear me to the staff, who I assumed had extraordinary if unbeknownst favors to bestow on chosen friends and neighbors. After my second weekly visit, I realized it would be hard to make myself a recognizable face. It was always packed with American tourists, and some Germans, and some actual French bakers and pastry chefs. Luckily, as a pastry student with too much free time, I was equipped to take drastic action.
A couple weeks later I walked into the store with a warm-from-the-oven Pithiviers in a blue-checked box. It was a recipe I needed to practice at home anyway after a slow performance in class. A Pithiviers is a masterpiece of French pastry the size of a cookie cake. Two layers of puff pastry surround a filling of marzipan and almond cream. The rounded edge of pastry is cut into a scallop pattern, and the top is scored like a sundial. As it bakes, the pastry puffs up around the fine cuts, leaving intricate puckers like the bunting on a quilt.
The store was fuller than I’d ever seen it. Everywhere, customers fought for the beleaguered salesmen’s attention. One apron-clad employee stood in front of a shelf of whisks in a dozen sizes, explaining to some Americans, by the looks of it, the purpose of a whisk. Another held court with a group attempting to haggle over the gleaming pots. I calculated that my best change at a one-on-one with an employee would be at the checkout counter manned by a gangly teenager.
I grabbed the nearest thing I saw that I might actually be able to justify buying, a metal madeleine mold. Like most things in the store, it didn’t have a price tag. I made for the back of the line. It would be like 15 bucks, right? When I got to the teenager, he rang me up. “48 euros,” he pronounced. My weekly grocery budget. But it was too late. I paid, and tucked the pan into my tote. OK. It was now or never.
I put the Pithivers box on the counter and began the speech I’d committed to memory, which I hope, in English, basically said this was a gift for the staff. The teenager blinked at me, and paused. The woman behind me tapped her foot. The teenager asked in French if it was for anyone in particular.
“Non,” I replied, feeling the beginning of a flush in my cheeks. “C’est un cadeau pour tout le monde.”
He accepted the box with a shrug, pushing it out of sight.
I hightailed it out of the store.
Despite how pricey the molds can apparently be, madeleines are a humble sweet – a simple cake batter baked into a bite-sized shell shape. They require only butter, sugar, flour, almond flour, and eggs – and they still taste pretty good if you use vegan butter instead. I learned recently that butter has a higher carbon footprint than pork. I always knew animal products are worse for the climate than plant-based ingredients, but I thought dairy ingredients to be kind of middling. And that’s generally true, with some caveats. The carbon footprints of butter and cream, because they take a high volume of milk, are more accurately grouped with meats like pork and poultry.
Veganizing these simple cakes seemed like a worthy use of my pan. I’m in the butter capital of the world, after all, so I’m more conscious of the climate impact of pastry these days. And margarine is cheaper than butter, so that’s what we’re doing for the next few budget cycles. At least I didn’t pull a Kamala Harris. Yet.
Below is a recipe for vegan madeleines with a cinnamon apple glaze that tastes like fall along the Seine. Now, if you don’t have a madeleine mold (which, why would you, unless you spiraled into buying it while awkwardly trying to give away a dessert for free), I bet you could bake these in a muffin tin. I haven’t tried that though, so let me know if you do! And note: I find the vegan butter lowers the height of the characteristic hump, but remember: we don’t care! It’s still a delicious cake, hump or no!
Recipe: Vegan Madeleines with Apple-Cinnamon Glaze
Time: 2 hours total. (15 minutes prep, 15 minutes bake, 90 minutes cooling and glazing.)
Makes: 12 madeleines
For the batter
- 100g (¾ cups) all-purpose flour
- 5g (1 tsp) baking powder
- 100g (7 tbsp) vegan butter, melted
- 80g (5 tbsp) applesauce
- 50g (¼ cup) sugar
- 10g (1 ¼ tsp) honey
- 30g (2 tbsp) soy milk
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla (or pinch of vanilla powder)
- Zest of ½ lemon
For the glaze
- 1 cup (100g) powdered sugar
- 250g (1 cup) apple juice (will reduce down)
- Slice of lemon (for squeezing)
- Pinch cinnamon
- Preheat oven to 375F (190C).
- Prepare madeleine mold by buttering well with a vegan butter into all the crevices with a pastry brush, then flouring lightly.
- Melt vegan butter in a bowl in the microwave, or on the stovetop. Set aside.
- Combine flour, baking powder, and lemon zest and whisk well to combine completely.
- In a separate bowl, whisk together the applesauce and sugar.
- Add honey, milk, and vanilla to the applesauce mixture and whisk to combine.
- Add half the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients, whisk until combined, then add the remaining dry ingredients and whisk again.
- Add the reserved bowl of melted vegan butter and whisk until fully combined.
- Spoon an equal amount of batter into each mold, eyeballing it as best you can to keep them consistent.
- Bake 4 minutes at 375F (190C) and then lower to 325F (160F) and bake an additional 10-13 minutes, until cakes are well browned at edges and beginning to brown across the middle.
MAKE THE APPLE-CINNAMON GLAZE
The glaze is what really makes these madeleines taste like pure fall. Reducing apple juice on the stove and then adding a tablespoon or two to powdered sugar, along with a pinch of cinnamon and a squeeze of lemon, makes these snacky cakes taste like an apple orchard with just a little pucker. Or if you like a lot more pucker with your autumn leaves, omit the reduced apple juice and combine the juice of half a lemon with powdered sugar and cinnamon.
- Pour a cup of apple juice into a saucepan, and cook over medium heat until reduced to a couple of tablespoons.
- Add 1 cup (100g) powdered sugar to a small or medium bowl.
- Once the reduced juice is cool, add a spoonful, a squeeze of lemon, and a small pinch of cinnamon. Whisk well to combine.
- Depending on the consistency, add more reduced apple juice, lemon, or powdered sugar.
- Once madeleines are cool, dip them in the glaze to your heart’s content! Optionally also roll them in pecan pieces for even more fall feels. Then let the madeleines drain and dry on a cooling rack with a paper towel under it.
Once dried…. eat them all at once. Or be moderate. Whatever suits you.